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Senate Democrats call on DOJ to probe expulsions of Tennessee state legislators

Lawmakers asked the Justice Department to determine whether state Republican violated the Constitution or federal civil rights laws by expelling Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson.
State Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and expelled Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, in Nashville on April 10, 2023.
State Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, and expelled Rep. Justin J. Pearson, D-Memphis, in Nashville on Monday.George Walker IV / AP

A group of Senate Democrats on Wednesday demanded the Justice Department investigate the recent expulsions of two Black Democratic Tennessee legislators who protested gun violence on the floor of the statehouse.

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Democrats, led by Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York asked the Justice Department to probe the expulsions of Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson to “determine whether any violations of the United States Constitution or federal civil rights laws have occurred, and to take all steps necessary to uphold the democratic integrity of our nation’s legislative bodies.”

The letter was also signed by Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Alex Padilla of California and Brian Schatz of Hawaii.

"These deeply moving expressions of democratic participation follow America’s long tradition of peaceful, non-violent protest, perfected during the struggles and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement," the lawmakers wrote. “There are no allegations that these democratically-elected officials engaged in any violent or illegal conduct.

“By courageously participating in nonviolent demonstrations, they challenged procedural rules governing decorum and good behavior," they added. “We believe the repeated and preventable slaughter of our children should frustrate and disrupt decorum because this horrifying pattern must never be accepted as business as usual."

In an unprecedented move, the GOP-controlled statehouse voted last week to expel Jones and Pearson for leading supporters in a protest on the chamber floor against gun violence and for restrictions on firearms after a shooting at a Nashville school killed six people, including three 9-year-old children. State Republicans argued that the legislators had broken the chamber's decorum rules.

A vote to boot state Rep. Gloria Johnson, a white Democrat who also participated in the protests, fell short. Johnson has said she believes she survived the vote because she’s a “60-year-old white woman and they are two young Black men.”

The Nashville Metropolitan Council voted unanimously Monday to reinstate Jones to his seat, and Memphis-area officials voted Wednesday to reinstate Pearson.

In their letter to Garland on Wednesday, the Senate Democrats argued that the expulsions were “antithetical” to democracy and that the decision appeared to be at least partly based on race.

“We cannot allow states to cite minor procedural violations as pretextual excuses to remove democratically-elected representatives, especially when these expulsions may have been at least partially on the basis of race," they wrote.